GEM FROM THE ARCHIVE
Kelda Roe from the University of Huddersfield’s brand new Heritage Quay archive centre tells Jon Bauckham about an item which can be used to find details of sporting ancestors
Rugby League Players register 1906-07
hile Britons have enjoyed playing sport for centuries, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that athletes began to lay down formal rules for their games and turn professional. However, issues over pay and amateurism led to a schism within rugby and the creation of a new sport altogether: rugby league.
This month, Kelda Roe from Heritage Quay tells us about a document created during the early years of the game and what it can reveal about its players.
Which document have you chosen?
The 1906-1907 Northern Union Register of Playersy is one of a series that was created to record which professional rugby league club a player had signed to for a season. This prevented players from signing for more than one club at once and ensured that there were centrally held contact details for all players.
The volumes are divided alphabetically by club, which then list – as a minimum – the players’ names and the date that they were registered with a club. Some volumes also include details of which club a player was transferred from and the player’s correspondence address.
What does it reveal about the lives of our ancestors?
The Northern Union Registers of Players are a useful resource for revealing and supporting information about the lives of rugby league players in the 20th century. They can help to narrow down searches for a relative’s geographic location at a particular time – if you know that someone played professional rugby league in the 1920s then there is a very good chance that the Registers of Players will hold his details.
The Registers of Players are also very important from a social and cultural history angle. They are part of the story of the Northern Union which was formed on 29 August 1895 by 22 northern rugby clubs following increasing tensions with the Rugby Football Union. The northern rugby teams of the late 19th and early-20th centuries tended to have a much larger working class demographic among their players compared with the largely middle class teams of the southern clubs. They therefore wanted to pay players compensation (known as broken-time payments) if they missed work because they were playing rugby.
The Rugby Football Union was strictly against any hint of professionalism which ultimately led to the split in 1895 between union and league codes. Rugby union remained officially amateur until 1995.
The Northern Union began as a professionalised version of rugby union but the new organisation quickly developed its own culture and style of play.
The new rugby game and the Northern Union soon became embedded in northern identities, especially in industrial working class areas. The game thrived in the areas now accessible by the M62 motorway but its heartland extended to Hull in the east and Barrow and Blackpool in the west. Geographic movement across these areas is reflected in n the Registers of Players. In the 1906-1907 volume many playe e rs signed to Huddersfield came from local clubs such as Underbank and Brighouse Rangers; others came from slightly further afield in Castleford and Leeds.
Sometimes a much greater upheaval is documented – JH Walton is shown as leaving g Huddersfield to go and play for Merthyr Tydfil in Wales.
Over the years the rules underwent a number of changes so that today’s game of rugby league is very different in style to rugby union: there are no line-outs,, scrums play only a very mino or role, and the play-the-ball ru ule results in a very fast-paced gam am me.
The game also developed internationally, putting down roots in Australia, New Zealand and southern France. This international element is evident in the Registers of Players – the 1906-1907 register’s Huddersfield page shows Edgar Wrigley of New Zealand signing to the club. He was one of several players from the 1907 New Zealand rugby union touring team who chose to sign to an English rugby league team rather than return home. The Rugby Football League Archive holds a number